20th Century Fox, autopsy, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “dirty black hands”, “No Way Out”, Beaver Canal, bigotry, brain tumor, censor, Constitutional amendment, death threat, Dick Paxton, Dr. Dan Wharton, Dr. Luther Brooks, Edie Johnson, film noir, govment, Hollywood 1950, Huck Fin, Jim, Johnny Biddle, Joseph Mankiewicz, Lesser Samuels, letter, lie, Linda Darnell, Mark Twain, Mississippi River, mulatter, N-word, Nigger, novel, Ossie Davis, Pap, p’fessor, political correctness, post-Civil War, pray, prison ward, psychopath, public hospital, race riot, racial alienation, racial divide, racist, Ray Biddle, review, reward, Richard Widmark, robbers, Ruby Dee, runaway, Sambo, Sidney Poitier, sin, slavery, spinal tap, Stephen McNally, vote
By Professor Guy Q. Publix
Parity of the races was presumably accomplished when our Constitution was amended with the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Unfortunately, you can’t pass a constitutional amendment to end racial prejudice and bigotry. All groups are capable of racism and prejudice.
“No Way Out” deals unflinchingly with racial alienation between blacks and whites. It could not be made today because of political correctness. The film’s review and historical analysis necessitates language which will offend — but must be quoted! Our American racial divide must finally be discussed in a civil dialog which will have the potential to unify, and not divide. THIS IS A FILM REVIEW, but is also, a 19th Century fictional novel mini-review dealing with similar subject matter occurring a hundred years earlier along the Mississippi River.
The fictional movie is set mostly in a public hospital in an unidentified American city in 1950. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier in his first major film role) is the hospital’s first black intern to earn his medical license, but wishes to remain in residency under his mentor, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally). Dr. Brooks is grateful for Wharton’s professional and personal friendship. He is insecure about his ability to become a great doctor, and needs Wharton’s encouragement. Is he on a pathway out of his poor environment, or will self-doubt defeat him?
Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) and a his brother Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) are brought into the prison ward of the hospital — suffering from minor gunshot wounds after the police apprehended them robbing a gas station. Widmark won notoriety as the psychotic, giggling villain Tommy Udo, in the 1947 film noir “Kiss of Death.” He manages to improve on malevolence as the psychopathic white racist from the white neighborhood slum of “Beaver Canal.” Some criticize Widmark’s performance as way over the top, but the professor thinks it ranks as one of the best ever. It takes an accomplished actor to spew enough racial epithets to make a Klansman blush, and yet evoke some pity for a spiritually pathetic human being at the movie’s conclusion.
Brooks examines both brothers, in the mist of Ray’s many racial insults, and observes Johnny has puzzling neurological symptoms. He performs a spinal tap on Johnny, who suddenly dies on the table in full view of Ray. Ray is enraged at Brooks for “deliberately killing Johnny” over Ray’s race baiting remarks.
When the hospital requests an autopsy to determine the cause of death, Ray refuses. Without the next of kin’s approval there could be no autopsy. Johnny Biddle had an ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell). Wharton and Brooks find her in a small room five blocks from Beaver Canal. She has a job as a carhop. She escaped the poverty and hopelessness of Beaver Canal, but just barely. Wharton tries to convince her that if she could prevail upon Ray Biddle to consent to an autopsy, Dr. Brook’s actions would be vindicated.
Edie beseeches Ray to consent to an autopsy, but Ray’s hatred rubs off on her temporarily. She agrees to take a message to some of the more violent thugs in Beaver Canal who then plan an attack on a nearby black ghetto — the same one Brooks is trying to escape from through education.
What the Beaver Canal thugs don’t know is that a black racist hospital employee has gotten word of the attack from rumors floating around the hospital, and warns other thugs in the ghetto about the impending attack. A full-fledged race riot ensues. This film doesn’t sugar coat the bigotry of both blacks and whites. Even Brook’s family is not immune to spurts of racism. The scenes of Brooks’ family which includes his wife, mother, sister (Ruby Dee) and brother in law (Ossie Davis in his movie debut) are still fairly realistic and nuanced.
The redeeming part of the film, however, is the lines of communication which open between key black and white persons of good will. Especially the scene between Wharton’s black housekeeper, played by Amanda Randolph, and Linda Darnell’s character, Edie. Darnell surprised most critics with a strong dramatic performance. This pivotal scene propels Edie to try to prevent Biddle from murdering Brooks at Wharton’s house in the closing scenes.
During the height of the race riot, the hospital was inundated with casualties. Dr. Brooks helped care for the patients until a white lady who was the mother of a white victim spat in his face for putting “his dirty black hands” on him. Brooks left the hospital in a rage, wandering the entire night. He then told his wife about his predicament, and resolved to confess to killing Johnny Biddle intentionally, thus forcing an autopsy. The autopsy results show that Johnny Biddle died from a brain tumor, absolved Dr. Brooks of any malpractice. An enraged Biddle with the help of his deaf mute brother George (Harry Bellaver) overpowered his guard, taking his revolver, and went hunting for Brooks at Wharton’s home.
The final scene showed an increasingly deranged Biddle who by now was suffering from an exacerbated leg wound, and unreasoning hatred. Brooks was lured to Wharton’s house (who was not home) and struck Brooks with his revolver when he entered. Edie later arrived, but couldn’t reason with Biddle. Originally, the screenplay called for Brooks to die at Biddle’s hand, but they opted for the Hollywood ending — sort of.
Biddle to Brooks: “In your pockets — Sambo! Sambo! I keep calling him that — (to Edie) all the time — little black Sambo. Just like when l was a kid — I can’t remember the story, only the name —- catch a nigger by the toe if he hollers let him go . . . they said it wasn’t nice to say nigger! (Biddle hits Brooks again with the revolver) Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Poor little nigger kids — love the little nigger kids! Who loved me! Who loved me?”
I leave you to watch the ending, which is pretty good for 1950 Hollywood. The original screenplay was to allow no character “No Way Out” of his environment.
Professor Guy’s Grade: 9/10.
Professor’s note: “No Way Out” was not shown in full national release due to its objectionable content. There were efforts to censor it, or ban it entirely.
Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” suffered much the same fate. The story was published in the U.S. less than 20 years after the Civil War. It is acknowledged masterpiece: but, it still has its critics. The “N” word was used over 400 times, yet it is inherently an egalitarian piece of work with a scathing denouncement of slavery. Twain used entertaining dialect and bitter satire to disguise the more controversial portions of the book. Huck appeared to cater to racist leanings by his teasing of Jim’s superstitions, yet he was equally harsh with some of the white characters he met. Huck evolved when he got a chance to know Jim, and was willing to go to any means to save him from slavery.
Anyone who still advocates banning this book has missed its major points. Unless open minded persons of all races are willing to have the hard conversations about racism, then we have evolved no further than not using the “N” word in public discourse. What notions might we really be suppressing? If we don’t scrutinize prejudices openly, there really is no way out! The professor leaves you with two passages from Twain’s novel to ponder.
PAP: (Huck’s father) Chapter VI:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio — a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane — the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me — I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger — why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold? — That’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold ’til he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now — that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger ’til he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and . . . .”
HUCK: (Chapter XXXI):
“It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.
“So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up.